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County pins staff with official badge of courage

The Baltimore Sun

Lionel Bankston remembers that he was installing skylights on the roof of The Maples of Towson when he spotted the flames shooting through the assisted-living facility's attic vent.

He rushed from the roof to the third floor of the building, grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out a fire in a resident's bathroom. Then, he said, he returned to the roof to extinguish the remaining flames -- and spotted an attic door with a bright orange glow.

"I backed away from it and started getting everybody out," he recalled yesterday. "I knew better than to open that door."

Bankston, maintenance director at the facility, was among 15 staff members from The Maples of Towson who were awarded "Baltimore County Hero Pins" yesterday for their work in helping seniors at the facility safely escape the April 20 fire.

"This is a wonderful example of handling the unexpected," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

Richard G. Muth, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Baltimore County, added, "Never in my 33 years in working for Baltimore County emergency services have I ever seen such a well-coordinated response from everyone involved.

"When things go right, it's usually not by accident, and that certainly was the case here," Muth said.

Employees from the county Departments of Health, Social Services and Aging were also recognized yesterday. The electrical fire, which according to a company official caused $1 million in damage, temporarily displaced 57 residents.

Gwen Ayres, 80, said she was watching television, three doors away from where the fire began, when she heard the alarm. "All I saw was smoke on the third floor, in my wing," she said. "It was a choking smell."

She said an official from the facility helped her escape.

Rashad Carter, 19, a chef at The Maples, said he was preparing chicken parmesan in the facility's basement when he heard the alarm. He said he smelled smoke and rushed upstairs, where he began carrying residents from the second floor out of the building.

"There was water everywhere," he said. "I just started grabbing people."

Other residents were already on the first floor of the building watching television and waiting for their 5 p.m. dinner.

Everyone was evacuated from the facility in about 10 minutes, said Susan Eckert, the facility's chief operating officer.

Monthly fire drills and the knowledge gained by facility officials' participation in a disaster and emergency preparedness plan seminar in July helped the rescue go smoothly, Eckert said.

"Everybody was very selfless," she said. "These people were awesome."

After the fire, the residents were taken to a hotel in White Marsh, where they stayed for several days. They were then moved to a hotel in Towson for another five nights.

Some areas of the facility remain closed.

Ayres said she was happy to return.

"Everyone here was so good to us," she said. "I'm just thankful everything turned out as nice as it did."

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